“You are trying so hard to prove how tough you are, but you’re a good kid.”
We were sitting on the front porch when my stepfather said these words to me.
At the time, I hated him for saying it. I wanted to be tough. I needed to be tough. Not being tough had put a giant target on my back for as long as I could remember.
But he was right.
I was teased and excluded for my wholesomeness as a kid. So, as a self-protective measure, I made it my mission to put on the armor of cynicism.
It’s only now, nearing middle age, that I have come to fully understand that cynicism is the weak person’s imitation of strength, and that the qualities that others thought made me weak have been the source of my greatest strength.
While masking is more or less universal amongst low support needs autistic people, our masks are as individual as we are.
My particular mask was a response to the cynical environment I found myself in. In order to keep myself safe, I had to abandon the often naive purity that was singling me out for social ostracism and to instead emulate the jaded manner of those around me.
Time and time again, I found myself abandoning my truth, scuffing myself up, trying to prove how tough I was, and trying to hide my innocence in order to be accepted by friends and partners.
But I’m older now, and I’m tired.
With less energy and fewer resources available to maintain it, my mask had already begun to seriously slip in my early thirties. Entering chronic autistic burnout is what led to me seeking assessment and being diagnosed as autistic in the first place.
When I first sought that assessment/diagnosis three years ago, I thought I’d either have my suspicions confirmed or denied, be told I was autistic or not autistic, and that would be that.
I never expected the massive identity crisis that followed my diagnosis (though I prefer the term “discovery” over “diagnosis.”)
After learning that I am indeed autistic, something that I had only ever been semi-conscious of came to the fore: the reason behind my inability to show up authentically in my relationships.
I say “semi-conscious” because while I was always aware, on some level, that I wasn’t being entirely genuine in my interactions with others, I couldn’t discern any reason for it or, more importantly, stop doing it.
Even when I would intend to “be myself” I would inevitably watch in horror as some other mechanism took me over like I was a puppet.
After my autism diagnosis/discovery, I finally knew what this mysterious mechanism was.
It was masking.
I discovered that masking was the force subconsciously directing me to blend in. It was the impetus behind all of my efforts to make myself more edgy, more cynical, less innocent, tougher.
My masking started young, in my formative years, when I was supposed to be establishing my own sense of self. Instead, I was perfecting my skills as a social shapeshifter. Once I finally learned what masking was and that I had been doing it essentially my whole life, I realized I didn’t even know who I was.
To say this was destabilizing is a phenomenal understatement.
And I’ve continued to reel ever since discovering that I am autistic and that essentially my entire life I have used masking as a survival mechanism.
And it is a survival mechanism. It is disingenuous and dishonest, yes, but not intentionally so. I look back on my life now with knowledge I didn’t have as I was living my life forward. I am only now conscious of the masking that has always been occurring. But as I was living my life, undiagnosed and undiscovered as an autistic person, I wasn’t fully conscious of this. All I knew was that I couldn’t seem to be myself no matter how hard I tried, and wasn’t even sure what “myself” was.
I’ve mentioned this before in other blog posts I’ve written, but I’ll say it again – masking is “fawning” in the “fight, flight, fawn or freeze” trauma response.
I think this is one reason why some people insist that autism is the result of trauma. What they are missing (aside from knowledge of research demonstrating autism to have a strong genetic component) is that this trauma doesn’t just exist in a vacuum.
I didn’t experience trauma so early and so pervasively in my life because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time – I experienced much of it because I was being bullied, punished or ostracized because of preexisting autistic traits and tendencies that made me different, and thus, a target.
In the question of which came first, trauma or autism, it is absolutely autistic traits which precipitate such trauma, not the other way around.
In other words, yes, the fawn response is a response to trauma, but the trauma inflicted on autistic people is society’s general response to autistic traits and autistic people. We are traumatized after we are brutalized, whether by words or actual physical violence, for being different.
Probably the best example of the fawn response I can think of in modern cinema is in the film Warm Bodies. In it, most of the world has been overrun by zombies, with only small pockets of uninfected humanity remaining.
One of the uninfected humans gets herself into a situation where she is out in the open, unprotected and surrounded by zombies. To escape being noticed and eaten, she acts like one of the zombies to fool them into thinking she’s one of them.
Is the girl inherently dishonest? Or is she just trying to survive by blending in?
Fawning is a basic survival mechanism employed by many different species throughout nature, including humans (and not just in the context of trying to avoid detection by zombies, of course – I just like that example because it’s so striking.)
Yes, masking is inherently dishonest. But it is not intentionally dishonest in the same way as a con artist is intentionally dishonest. It is about as intentional as flinching when someone throws a punch at your face, which is to say, not intentional at all.
That’s what makes it so hard to stop doing, and explains why even when my conscious intention was to be authentic and to “be myself,” something else seemed to override that intention. Survival mechanisms will override conscious level intentions in order to keep the organism safe, every time.
How do you “train” yourself out of flinching when someone throws a punch at your face? You can certainly try, and maybe you’ll be successful at diminishing your flinching, but you’ll probably never be able to completely stop it from happening, because it’s happening on a more primal, more hardwired, more instinctual level than the conscious mind and its intention.
Similarly, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to “train” myself out of masking. It is an involuntary action, a mechanism my brain has considered necessary to ensure my survival, and it is a response to trauma.
I recently came across an article on a study which concluded that while friendship can be desirable, rewarding and pleasant, it is not essential for mental or emotional well-being. All that is essential is that individuals are able to interact with other human beings in order to have their basic needs met.
Minimally, a person needs to be able to maintain cordial relations with others, as humans are interdependent and need to rely on one another to meet our basic survival needs. You cannot survive in total social isolation.
So if you are a person whose natural way of being in the world puts you at risk for total social isolation, which endangers your ability to have your basic needs met, it suddenly makes a whole lot of sense why your brain would subconsciously slip into a “fawn” response like masking. It is a way to meet basic survival needs. Without it, survival may not be ensured.
At this point, masking is a deeply ingrained survival mechanism for me that I might not be able to change, and it creates a positive feedback loop that is pretty awful to live in.
That is because when you mask, you’re establishing what behavior others can expect from you. The upside to this is getting your basic survival needs met. The downside is that people then expect you to behave that same way the next time they interact with you.
But since masking is essentially suppressing all your natural ways of being (which takes much more mental energy than one might think) and requires manually selecting every facial expression, every body movement, every word choice, every tone of voice (mannerisms that do not come naturally to one and which take a great deal of mental focus to emulate) you have to have a lot of mental and physical energy in order to do it.
Here’s where the problem comes in – the more you mask, the less energy you have to mask. But the more you mask, the more you are expected to mask. Drop the mask, and you potentially lose vital and important relationships and your survival capacity is diminished in direct ratio to that.
Since masking long term isn’t sustainable, and since expending more energy than you can recuperate on a regular basis will lead to exhaustion and burnout, autistic people who have to mask in order to obtain the basic needs for survival will inevitably crash and burn.
I’ve crashed and burned so many times. It is why I have earned the labels of “flaky” and “unreliable.” It is virtually impossible to be reliable when the only way you’re able to successfully navigate life is to regularly burn the candle at both ends.
So I made a decision recently. If I really had nothing to lose, if it was inevitable that I would tank all of my relationships via the unreliability that comes with high masking and burning out from masking, what if I was simply honest and completely transparent with the people I masked most with about what masking was, what it cost me, and asking whether we could communicate in a way that didn’t require me to mask so much?
I approached the group of people I mask with the most – my family (in an email, as speaking orally always involves involuntary masking for me while communicating through writing does not.)
I explained what masking is, and that while my desire for connection with my family has always been genuine, my demonstration of my social competence has not been.
I explained that I can no longer communicate solely through FaceTime or phone calls, which has been my family’s preferred methods of communicating (as we live states away) but that not being able to communicate solely orally doesn’t mean I don’t want to communicate.
I was a little afraid of what the response was going to be. They had only learned of my autism diagnosis when I did, three years ago, and were surprised by it. I have masked probably the hardest, especially in my adult years, with my family, out of anyone I’ve ever interacted with, as I wanted connection with them so badly.
But the response was very positive so far, which has been a relief, an encouragement, and even has challenged the “belief” (put in quotes because the subconscious survival mechanisms don’t involve much conscious level thought, much less coherent belief, instead relying almost solely on instinct) that lay beneath the masking mechanism (that unspoken belief being “if I do not mask, I will not be able to maintain relationships, and will not be able to meet my basic survival needs, and will not be able to survive.”)
It is scary and destabilizing to have to reassess the entire way that you interact with other people, but so necessary for autistic people who mask. And, I’m finding, it is so necessary to challenge the fears, based in past trauma, that trigger such a masking response in the first place.
Some autistic people don’t experience as intense negative effects from masking as I seem to, and there may be many reasons for this. One, they may be younger than I am, they may not have kids like I do, they may have more supports and accommodations than I do, they may have less trauma than I do, etc., all of which translating to having more energy resources with which to mask on a regular basis.
Like I said above, each of us is an individual and our relationship with masking will reflect that. But on the whole, it seems that masking becomes more and more difficult, more and more harmful, and leads more and more to outcomes like autistic burnout the older autistic adults become.
It can even lead to chronic physical illness, which I also experience. It feels like my body is demonstrating for me the consequences of constantly burning myself in the fire to keep others warm. It takes a toll over time.
I understand now that this is a process, a journey. I understand now that it’s not as simple as getting a diagnosis and then just getting on with your life. It’s not as simple as just learning that you’re masking and deciding to stop. There are so many factors involved, both internal and external. It goes so much deeper than conscious level intention, into the very woof and warp of our subconscious minds trying to keep us alive.
This is my journey to authenticity, and I realize I am not going to arrive there overnight. Yet it reminds me of the famous quote by Eckhart Tolle, “You get there by realizing you’re already there.” I don’t need to “figure out” who I am – I need to cultivate the courage to accept who I’ve always been, who I have been embarrassed of being, who I have been shamed for being, who I have been trying to suppress.
That, I think, is the “cure” for masking – it’s less about adding something to your life as it is subtracting. Subtracting the effort to restrain what is naturally already there, what one has to try hard not to be. Challenge the assumption that just because some people in your life ostracized or punished or belittled or traumatized you for being who you are that all people will react to you in the same way. Dare to accept what already exists, which is your ineffable essence as a person, more and more every day.
It also makes me think of one of my favorite lyrics of all time, from the Joni Mitchell song “A Case of You”: ‘I’m frightened by the Devil, and I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid.”
Because that’s who I am, who I’ve always been – embarrassingly pure. I’m not one of the edgy ones, despite being drawn to them. I’m what I’ve always tried to hide and am gathering the courage, day by day, to openly be again.
I am moving, ever so slowly, against the trauma responses which are begging me to keep masking at all costs, into the radical acceptance of what seemed to be so unacceptable when I was young – my authentic way of being in the world.
I am leveraging my internal resources to provide for as many of my own needs as possible so that I am not so affected by others’ acceptance or rejection of me as I truly am.
It’s maybe the scariest thing I’ve ever done.
But it’s not as scary as looking in the mirror and realizing I don’t know who I am because I’ve subconsciously tried to be everything to everyone.
It’s not as scary as realizing most of my relationships have only ever been superficial, and feeling the crushing emptiness of loneliness even while in relationship with others.
While that study I previously referenced did mention total social isolation as being detrimental to mental health, I actually am starting to see that my worst fears aren’t being recognized. I’m not becoming totally socially isolated by being transparent about who I really am. There are people who are willing to understand.
I’m also working with my state’s office of vocational rehabilitation (a government organization that helps aging and disabled people to get prepared for and attain and keep employment.)
Up until now, I’ve never been able to keep employment, in large part because of masking. My employment would last only as long as I could sustain the mask, and when it would slip and/or when I crashed and entered a state of autistic burn out, I would lose the job.
Part of the office of vocational rehabilitation’s functions are to ensure that disabled people receive accommodations that allow us to do our jobs. So not only are they helping me to (hopefully) find a job that’s a good fit for me, they will be able to provide accommodations like making employers and coworkers aware that I require most communications in writing, possibly providing sensitivity training to companies to teach their employees how autistic people may communicate and behave in ways that may be outside expected social norms, to minimize the amount of social expectations on me that would require me to mask.
Organizations like state offices of vocational rehabilitation and the work they do create an atmosphere of understanding, to help autistic and disabled people integrate better into society, to advocate for needed accommodations, represent the type of work necessary to eliminate the social factors contributing to the need to mask. They also represent hope.
Maybe I’m part of this first wave of adult autistics who are going to help pave the way for future generations of autistic people, especially “low support needs” autistics (who tend to mask more) to have to mask less, by creating awareness of what masking is, why it is so harmful to us and unsustainable for us, and how autistic people really need to interact with others.
Maybe I am part of the demographic of people who is going to show that many of the differences people perceive about autistic people who have different support needs are mainly superficial, because “low support needs” autistic people are merely better at hiding our needs, but have more needs for accommodation than others ever expected.
Either way, it is my hope that sharing musings like this can be helpful to someone, somewhere. I would love to be part of creating a more understanding world where autistic people do not need to hide who we are in order to be seen as valid and worthy of support and inclusion.